Actor John Cleese to Probe Role of Creativity

Times Staff Writer

Tall even for a cultural icon, John Cleese has interests beyond abusive hotel management, the dearth of cheese and the mortality of parrots.

The 63-year-old actor and writer has long been a student of creativity as well as a distinguished practitioner.

In fact, when he talks about creativity, Cleese doesn’t bring up such timeless examples as Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks or the parrot sketch. Instead, he cites research by the late Donald MacKinnon, a World War II spymaster and UC Berkeley psychologist who studied creativity in architects, among others.

“It’s such beautiful research because it’s so simple,” Cleese said of MacKinnon’s comparison of highly creative architects with their less gifted colleagues.


The difference between them? “The more creative ones had a facility for switching into a more playful mode. It’s a leisurely mode,” Cleese said. And, unfortunately, he pointed out: “Most of us are manic.”

Cleese, who has a home in Santa Barbara, will talk about creativity Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Retreating to a quiet place to work is one of Cleese’s prescriptions for enhancing creativity.

He says he wrote the first draft of “A Fish Called Wanda” (nominated for a best original screenplay Academy Award) in just 10 days at a fat farm.


In that unhurried environment, Cleese admitted, he didn’t spring out of bed each morning and get right to work.

“Nobody sits down to write right away,” he said. “There’s always a period of sharpening pencils and making phone calls.”

Joining him Thursday will be Getty Center advisor Ken Robinson and British psychologist Brian Bates.

Cleese did the BBC show and book “The Human Face” with Bates, and the three recently took their act on the road.

“It’s going to be fairly relaxed,” Robinson, 52, said of the Skirball evening. “It’s like jazz. You know what the tune is, but you don’t know how you’re going to play it.”

Cleese and Robinson are alarmed about the state of schools.

Most are failing, they say, because they tend to leach the creativity out of students.

“I don’t think you have to convince many people about the importance of [creativity],” Cleese said.


But getting businesses, schools and other institutions to embrace it is another matter: “I’m not so sure people want creative people around them,” he said.

The author of a book on creativity called “Out of Our Minds” (also the title of the Skirball program), Robinson is a longtime advocate of putting the arts back into the school curriculum.

In Britain, at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s request, Robinson headed a national committee to promote creativity in schools..

“In my experience, education is not designed to promote creativity,” Robinson said. “It’s pretty much designed to do the opposite.”

“Out of Our Minds” begins at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets cost $50. Call (310) 559-9334.